Remembering Joe Green: The Life & Art of Giuseppe Verdi
Quite possibly the biggest fan of the Bard of Avon to ever exist was none other than the Father of Italian Opera, Giuseppe Verdi
The “Brindisi” or Drinking Song
from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Macbeth”
Even the Maestro, himself, was star struck when it came to artistic greatness. In fact, Giuseppe Verdi was so thoroughly well versed in this one man’s artistry, it’s not a stretch to say the Father of Italian Opera could very well have been one of his biggest fans.
This hyper-fandom is evidenced by the Maestro not only having read each and every one of this man’s numerous works, he did so repeatedly. This famed personality was so revered by the composer, a special term of endearment was reserved for him whenever Verdi used the word “Pappa”. Giuseppe Verdi held this man’s genius in such high regard, the Maestro took four of his complete works and set them each to music.
I can only be inferring to that 17th century British actor whom many consider to be the greatest writer of the English language whose plays are as timely today as when they were originally written some 500 years ago – the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.
As the ultimate homage from one monumental artist to another, the Maestro wrote three operas from four of Shakespeare’s plays with one of them being the fusion of two of the Bard’s pieces written for the theatrical stage: Macbeth, Falstaff (an operatic combination of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV), and Othello (in Italian, “Otello”).
Composed at the twilight of his life when he was 80 years old, Falstaff is the last of Verdi’s operatic creations and is the Maestro’s only comedy (actually his only successful comedy, Verdi tried his hand making with the musical yuk-yuks with his 2nd opera that ended up being a complete flop). “Falstaff” is seen by many music scholars as a culmination of the Maestro’s musical genius and amassed artistic experiences as well as a highly personalized Swan Song which bade farewell to a composing career that traversed across generations.
Otello is the musical version of Shakespeare’s play of the same name but without the letter “H”. Whereas most renditions of a well established work usually detract from the source, many agree Verdi’s masterpiece actually accentuates the Bard’s original theatrical effort. The opera departs from the play in certain choice scenes where the music makes the story of the passion filled Moor destroyed by “the green eyed monster” a fuller and richer dramatic experience, overall. Critics and fans alike state that what the opera lacks in original poetry or text is resolved by Verdi’s sublime music.
Which leaves us with the Scottish Play.
After “Un Ballo in Maschera”, Macbeth is my 2nd favorite Verdi opera with the two pieces making up my top 5 favorite musical works of all time. As your author sees it, how could a musical version of a Shakespearean play that’s chock full of diabolical witchcraft complete with blood covered ghosts rising from the grave to seek vengeance among the living NOT be one of his favorite compositions of all time?
I love every note of this opera. Although written relatively early in his career, Verdi composed Macbeth with such an economy of means, not a minute is wasted in making the listener either ambitiously inspired in a psycho mass murderer kind of way or thoroughly petrified in a psycho mass murderer kind of way as well. To give just one example among many, in Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene, where in the play the character exclaims her famous somnambular phrase of “Out, out damned spot!”, Verdi has the evil Queen’s first sleep filled muttering match her sense of guilt-filled urgency with Lady M’s sung entrance being reduced to just two horror stricken words “Una Macchia” – “A spot“.
When the singer like no other, Shirley Verrett passed away in 2010, I wrote an article recalling my memories of being fortunate enough to hear her voice live and recounting meeting the woman who embodied the best possible connotations associated with the word “Diva”. The piece was entitled:
Shirley Verrett – Artistic Versatility at its Penultimate Best
Along with discussing how Ms. Verrett’s artistry played a pivotal role in my evolutionary growth as both a singer and a human being, the article also retells the story of Shirley’s biggest operatic triumph when she transitioned from the mezzo-soprano to the dramatic soprano repertoire by singing a part that eventually became one of her signature roles – that cheerleader-for-murder of an evil spouse, Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth. To quote that piece:
“Voi Siete Demente?
By far, Shirley Verrett’s greatest transitional triumph into the soprano repertoire was a role greatly admired and feared for its difficulty of vocal production and dramatic display – Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic homage to Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”, Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth is the epitome of duality twistedly transformed for the self-serving intent of murderous manipulation. The psyche of Macbeth’s cheerleading-for-murder spouse juxtaposingly splits: in public, she can rouse the patriotic fervor of her people in a banquet drinking song, while in private, she can rouse her mate into being the cause of untimely death not just for his loyal colleagues but for the victims’ extended family members as well.
In the opera’s Great Hall scene, Macbeth, now newly crowned King of Scotland asks his Queen to welcome their subjects to their celebratory feast with a drinking toast where Verrett’s voice is then heard brightly beaming with enthusiasm. My favorite line of the opera (actually it’s my favorite only when Shirley does it), is while in the middle of this largely attended banquet Macbeth has a seizure-like panic attack after screaming aloud that he cannot be seated due to the specter of his freshly murdered royal competitor Banquo taking the liberty of seating himself at his throne. Horrified and mortified her hubby has just unraveled in front of a full house with his public display of guilt, Lady Macbeth approaches her profusely sweaty prostrate husband and asks “Voi Siete Demente?” “Are you demented?”
In the 1979 Deutsche Grammaphone studio recording, Verrett makes this inquiry under her breath but the question is spiked with a “Just you wait til I get you alone” intensity. She literally hisses the question at her husband with a hushed tone of seething rage.
Shirley Verrett’s performances of Lady Macbeth made audiences delirious with her chameleon-like dramatic ability to show the juxtaposing sides of the female lead role’s power-starved psyche. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the composer’s homeland of Italy. Verrett’s Lady Macbeth was so well received at La Scala, the Milanese dubbed her with their own triumphant title of dualistic distinction, “La Nera Callas”, “The Black Callas”,”
More than enough said….actually I take that back. In my mutably humble and holier than thou opinion, between you and me, that woman’s version of Lady M which Shirley’s masterful interpretation is compared to pales in comparison when considering the chameleon-like skills of the Mutable signed singer they also called “La Verrett”.
Below: Wearing the longest theatrical cape in the history of Theater, Shirley Verrett performs her celebrated 1975 interpretation of Lady Macbeth from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” which took place in the Maestro’s hometown opera house of Milan’s La Scala.
*Brad Kronen has written an astrological dating guide for each sign of the Zodiac entitled “Love in the Stars”. In honor of one of opera’s most mutably versatile singers below is the link for the romance guide written specifically for the sign the great Shirley Verrett was born under – the most Mutably versatile of the 12 – Gemini.